Growing up in Waterloo in the 40’s and 50’s, my exposure to North American Indians was minimal. The closest that I got was the occasional black athlete who came here to play for the Waterloo baseball club. My exposure to race was limited to stories and to Tonto (Jay Silverheels) who came from the Six Nations Reserve at Brantford.
My years at the Ontario College of Art were my first experiences with a real Indian guy from the Six Nations at Brantford. He was the Indian guy. I was the Mennonite guy. Simple definitions! Unfortunately, I did not make an effort to get to know this fellow who carried his background as a flag for all to see. He was not belligerent, just unequivocal about his heritage which flavoured his paintings. Even my time with the Grand Valley Foundation did not expose me to much Indian culture or people, even though the Six Nations’ reserve is firmly placed on that waterway. My most profound insight into the First Nations’ mind was through the multifaceted paintings of Arthur Shilling, an Ojibway artist who attended the art college several years before me.
I had an exhibition of my Waterloo County Mennonite paintings in London, England in 1979. In the gallery hung with all those images of farmhouses and horses, strangely the most asked question was, “Do you do paintings of red Indians?” Clearly to people in Britain, Canada means a massive undeveloped country full of “red Indians”.
Late this past summer, Marilyn and I had the good fortune to drive to the West Coast of Canada. I was startled to find at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba that the local Indian tribe had set up a wigwam motel. On the shores of Lake Katherine within the park, a person can stay for a night in a teepee. Nearby is a restaurant, showers and laundry, all run by the tribe, so this experience is not a “roughing it” adventure, but rather a gentle insight into traditional Indian life. We were there too late in the season this time, but I would not rule out a night in a deer-skin hotel room.
Returning to Ontario, we stopped to visit old friends who live near Kenora. While his wife hails from the Kitchener-Waterloo area, the man is a Cree Indian from Saskatchewan. While they have visited our home many times, we had been tardy in getting ourselves to Kenora to finally accept their invitation to visit. We enjoyed a tour of their house, a pretty yellow and white building, sitting half way up a steep hill. After a lovely dinner, we mentioned the number of Indian owned and operated casinos that we had passed as we drove to the West Coast. We all agreed that perhaps these casinos were the Indians’ new buffalo, providing all the needs of the First Nations.
Silently, our Indian friend left the living room and returned with a quilt that he gave to us. We were overwhelmed at this wonderful gift. Why? Why? It is apparently the Cree tradition that a first-time visitor to one’s home is given a blanket that signifies welcome and warmthsomething that wraps around the guest. He also gave us a braid of sweet grass that he explained should be burned in times of stress so that the smoke could rise to the Great Manitou. We were so touched.